Listening to Beethoven #74 – Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe


Gottfried August Bürger

Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe WoO 118 for voice and piano (1794-5, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Text Gottfried August Bürger
Duration 6’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This is one of Beethoven’s biggest solo vocal works to date, setting a pair of poems by Gottfried August Bürger. The first, Seufzer eines Ungeliebten (Plaint of a Loveless Man), is set out as an operatic recitative, while the second, Gegenliebe (Requited Love) is more of an aria with a broad, flowing profile. Commentators immediately noted the similarity of the melody in the second poem not just to the Choral Fantasy Op.80 but to the Ode to Joy from the Choral Symphony.

Susan Youens, writing for the recording made by Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside for Signum Classics, notes that ‘if the prosody leaves something to be desired, it is nonetheless fascinating that this melodic idea was brewing in Beethoven’s brain literally for decades and that the song’s impulse gave rise to the mighty symphony’.

Amanda Glauert, in The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven, draws a strong parallel with the forthcoming concert aria Ah, Perfido! For her Beethoven ‘chose to adopt an exaggeratedly operatic idiom for his setting of the first poem’, concluding that ‘the gracious triple-meter melodies in E flat into which both song and aria resolve are so similar in contour that one can sense how Beethoven must have borrowed the style from his teacher (Salieri) or other Italianate models. In Gegenliebe, ‘the awkward text setting…when heard in context…becomes the natural consequence of the voice being pushed forwards by the piano’s rhythmic intensity.’

Meanwhile in The Beethoven Companion, Leslie Orrey finds the piano writing ‘suggests a transcription of an orchestral score.’

Thoughts

Just as his studies with Albrechtsberger have been blooming, so Beethoven’s education with Salieri appears to be bearing bigger and greater fruit. The songs we are hearing now are more substantial and adventurous, and this two-parter is one borne of the stage rather than the recital room.

From the first notes it is clear this is substantial and meaningful vocal work for Beethoven. There is an immediate sense of drama, maybe exaggerated a bit but ideally suited to the male singer. Tension surrounds the music from the off, but is resolved beautifully into the Requited Love, where we first hear the memorable theme. Its similarity to the Ode To Joy is uncanny, and as Susan Youens says it must have meant a lot to the composer, a melody whose profile stayed at the front of his thoughts for decades.

Once heard it is the tune that dominates, and the aria finishes in a resilient and triumphant mood.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Jörg Demus (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)

Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Olbertz (piano)

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Melvyn Tan (fortepiano) (Archiv)

An imperious performance from the great baritone Fischer-Dieskau, with a dramatic introduction and ideal phrasing on the big tune. Hermann Prey and Leonard Hokanson are even more expansive, clocking in at nearly seven minutes. Peter Schreier moves the music up in pitch (in C minor rather than B flat minor) but his version also carries a sense of occasion. Anne Sofie von Otter does too, though not quite as full bodied in tone. Melvyn Tan’s fortepiano provides ideal support.

Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jörg Demus

Hermann Prey, Leonard Hokanson

Peter Schreier & Werner Olbertz

Anne Sofie von Otter, Melvyn Tan

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1795 Reicha –  Concerto Concertant Op.3

Next up O care selve (first version)

Listening to Beethoven #41 – 8 Lieder Op.52


Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

8 Lieder Op.52 for voice and piano (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Urians Reise um die Welt (poet: Matthias Claudius)
Feuerfarb’ (Sophie Moreau)
Das Liedchen von der Ruhe (Hermann Wilhelm Franz Ueltzen)
Mailied (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Mollys Abschied (Gottfried August Bürger)
Lied (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing)
Marmotte (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Das Blümchen Wunderhold. (Gottfried August Bürger)

Dedication not known
Text as above
Duration 15’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s Op.52 is effectively an anthology of eight songs thought to have been written before he left Bonn for Vienna, with no exact dates of composition. They set six poets in all, and in publication at least are arranged in a logical sequence. That they are rarely performed in that sequence, or in a complete state, says much for the chequered reputation Beethoven’s songs continue to receive.

It has always been the case. To say these songs divided opinion early in their existence is to put it mildly – and as the (uncredited) booklet note for the complete songs as released by Capriccio notes, ‘the echo they met with in the musical criticism of the time is typical of the way the majority of Beethoven’s songs have been received critically up to the present day’. The example quoted is the Popular Music Newspaper in Leipzig, whose verdict in 1805 ran…’these eight songs. Is that possible? Comprehend it who can, that such thoroughly common, impoverished, dull and in parts even risible works can not only be produced by such a man, but also be presented to the public! Only the first of these songs (Urian’s Journey), as a result of the touch of the comic, and the seventh (Marmotte) as a result of a national element, which however, can be learned from any young marmot, are tolerable’.

In reality it is very unlikely the eight songs would be performed together from start to finish – performers would tend to take a song or two as part of a section of the concert dedicated to Beethoven songs. The songs vary greatly in character however. Urians Reise has 14 stanzas for its journey around the world, concluding in its various sufferings, and with a wry smile, that people are the same everywhere.

Mailied and Marmotte represent Beethoven’s first settings of a certain Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the former complemented by Susan Dunn as ‘wonderful, a variation on the antique genret of the spring song’. Mollys Abschied and Das Blümchen Wunderhold set the verses of Gottfried August Bürger, the first a ballade on the tragic death of the poet’s sister-in-law, who died in childbirth a year after they were married, and the second ‘the epitome of the folk-like Lied’.

Feuerfarb’ is an unconventional poem from Sophie Moreau, while Das Liedchen von der Ruhe speaks of a forced parting which for Dunn ‘elicited a gently lovely song’ from the composer. Lied, from the pen of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, would surely have chimed with Beethoven’s desire for a wife.

Thoughts

Once again, listening to Beethoven’s songs is a revealing exercise, and there is much in this set to note. Urians Reise is a long tale with a comedic twist – po-faced but also alternating between minor and major key in a rather more blatant manner than Schubert would eventually write. The many verses are dressed with a stentorian refrain. “There’s a thing! Well done, old chum, Er, what’s yer name, go on go on…”

Feuerfarb’ is softer, with flowing piano and a more sensitive line, and here a major-minor clash appears briefly but tellingly in the piano line. Das Liedchen von der Ruhe (A Reflection on Peace) depicts a tired, suffering man searching for the kind of rest he cannot have – with Elise – but still it looks anyway, dwelling on the thought of eternal rest and crossing into paradise.

Mailied, the first setting of Goethe, tells a first-hand account of an affair. It is bright, springlike and quite wordy, with a piano part chirping like the birds. Mollys Abschied also has a brighter tone but is a pained song, given as a farewell to ‘my man of joy and pain’. The piano is quite florid between verses – and there is definitely a sense that the piano is starting to contribute more to Beethoven’s songs, acting not just as an accompaniment but offering more comments on the text. This song is short but rather touching – and La Marmotte (Goethe again) is a quick and pictorial tale. Finally Das Blümchen Wunderhold is a song about the Wondrouswort flower, ‘more valuable than any jewel’ and with powers ‘no elixir on earth can match’. The music doesn’t perhaps reach those heights but still tells the story.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Jörg Demus (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)

Fischer-Dieskau is imperious in these songs, commanding in Urians Reise and larger than life in La Marmotte, which is cut to a tiny version but really nicely weighted in Die Liebe. Hermann Prey and Leonard Hokanson, meanwhile, employ a unison choir to sing the choruses in the lengthier Urians Reise, an effective tactic especially when alternating between men’s and women’s voices.

Spotify links

A playlist of three different versions of the 8 Songs can be found here:

Also written in 1792 Haydn Symphony no.97 in C major

Next up 12 Variations on ‘Se vuol ballare’ Woo40